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Here’s another one of my favorite Rejected Princesses – Nzinga Mbande, 17th-century queen of what is now Angola.
She began her political life as her nation of Ndongo was fighting off a Portuguese invasion. Her brother, a by-all-accounts wimp, seemingly could not bend over backwards far enough for the Portuguese, and once he ascended to the throne, the Portuguese just tossed him in jail and took over. Nzinga approached the Portuguese and demanded her brother’s return and that they leave Ndongo. At their meeting, in a sign of disrespect, the Portuguese offered her no chair to sit in, instead providing merely a floor mat fit for servants.
In response, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get on all fours, sitting on her as she would a chair. After the negotiations concluded, according to some accounts (more on that later), she slit her throat in full view of everyone, and informed them that the Queen of Ndongo does not use the same chair twice. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese agreed to let her brother go.
With her brother now safely back home, she is said (again, more on that later) to have murdered him in his sleep, killed her brother’s son, and assumed the throne herself - because if you’re going to do something right, you better do it yourself. From there, she moved south, started a new country, conquered the infamous ruthless cannibal tribe known as the Jaga, began offering sanctuary to runaway slaves and defector soldiers, and waged war on the Portuguese for THIRTY FIVE YEARS.
Now, you may have noticed that I have repeatedly used words like “supposedly” and “according to some accounts.” As with many powerful historical women (as you’ll come to see as you read more of these entries), her story is a mixture of fact and fiction, with the two difficult to separate. That she met with the Portuguese and that she sat on her servant’s back is generally agreed by historians to be accurate. Furthermore, there is no doubt that she was a thorn in the side of the Portuguese, that she founded a new nation, or that she was a great leader.
Where it begins to fall to suspicion is in the more salacious rumors. While some report that she murdered her brother, others report that her brother committed suicide. Her slitting the servant girl’s neck and proclaiming her need for one-use chairs is likely hyperbole. Other outlandish rumors, to be taken with a brick of salt, include:
After killing her brother’s family, she ate their hearts to absorb their courage.
As a pre-battle ritual, she decapitated slaves and drank their blood.
She maintained a 60-man-strong harem throughout her life – this one, best I can tell, is more regarded as true than most of the others.
The men in her harem would fight each other to the death for the right to share her bed for the night. This one is more doubtful.
She also apparently dressed some of them like women.
Conversely, she staffed her army with a large number of women warriors.
It is difficult to determine how much of this is fact and how much fiction – it is entirely possible that she stirred up some of this as her own PR in the war against Portugal, and it is entirely possible some of it was a smear campaign by her enemies. Based off my (ongoing) research, a lot seems to stem from a book called Zingha, Reine d'Angola by Jean-Louis Castilhon. The book is in French, though, and I haven’t been able to find much English-language information on it yet.
Anyways, after decades of killing the Portuguese (both militarily and economically, cutting off their trade routes), they eventually threw their hands up and negotiated a peace treaty. She died several years afterwards, at the ripe old age of eighty-one. There are statues of her all over Angola to this day.
Many people have (rightfully) been clamoring for citations on some of the more outlandish rumors here. I’ve wanted to hold off until I got to the actual origin of some of them, but I’ll release now what I have.
The at-the-time rumors about her seem to have largely stemmed from a Dutch captain named Fuller, who claimed he saw her dance wildly, stick a feather in her nose, decapitate a sacrificial victim, and drink “a great draught of his blood.” He nevertheless respected her greatly and described her as “generously valiant.” An excerpt from his notes can be found in Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present by Linda Grant de Pauw.
The rumors that she killed her brother, nephew, had a great harem, dressed them like women, and practiced cannibalism can be found in A Military History of Africa by Timothy J Stapleton (as well as many other books).
The rumors of her killing the slave whom she had used as a chair, proclaiming that she never used the same chair twice, that she killed her kin and ate them, and that she killed members of her harem can be found in Women Warriors by Rosalind Miles and Robin Cross.
I reached out to Robin Cross and Rosalind Miles for help in further research – as I don’t have physical access to Women Warriors, and I can’t check its bibliography online. Mr. Cross wrote me back suggesting I look up Portuguese Africa by Ronald Chilcote (1959).
I tracked down Portuguese Africa, and it has no reference to the slitting-throat legend (although the sitting-on-servant one is represented). I reached out to Mr. Cross again, but have yet to hear back.
I’ve also found the throat-slitting legend repeated in Antonia Fraser’s The Warrior Queens, but with no specific source. At this point, worrying this is something I won’t be able to get to the bottom of.
I have also reached out to a scholar who is currently writing a book on Nzinga for help in uncovering additional sources of the rumors about her.
I will continue to update this entry as I am able to uncover more reliable information about her.
Her outfit and axe are derived directly from one of the statues around Angola.
The servant she used as a chair was female, not male. I realized this after the fact. Eep!
She’s wiping a bit of something red from her mouth as a reference to the blood-ingesting legends.
#LocalLens: Time Travel through Luanda with @notflavio
In this series, local Instagrammers show you their favorite places to shoot around where they live. To see more photos of Luanda, Angola, through Flávio’s eyes, follow @notflavio on Instagram.
Flávio Cardoso (@notflavio) is an experienced time traveler, simultaneously capturing Angola’s past and present. Through his camera, the 27-year-old information technology advisor from Luanda records nostalgic relics, like aging walls and shattered windows, scattered amid shiny new architectural designs in his southern African hometown. “People just let go of things they once treasured. There’s a lot you can tell from the past when it’s left abandoned,” he says. Flávio’s fascination with old objects is very much a result of his surroundings. “You get all sorts of contrasts around here; from the richest people in Africa to very poor people struggling to survive in the streets to expensive luxury cars parked right next to rotting, used commuters,” he explains.
Lucky for Flávio, there are many nearby places to explore Luanda’s history and make new memories for himself. “One of my favorite places is certainly Santiago Beach, also known as Ship’s Graveyard, where several decomposing ships were left abandoned. This is also where Natalia Vieira (@nat_rvieira), Rui Jorge (@ruyjorgee) and I had our first InstaMeet, and it inspired many photo adventures here in Angola.” Hotel Panorama, a decaying hotel with mesmerizing views of the city and sea, is also among Flávio’s favorite photo locations. Although his photos capture scenes of destruction, they also bring the past back to life, in hopes that these places and objects may be valued again.